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The Not-So-Friendly Skies

The journey to the AI8 Promised Land has been one to forget. Except we won't allow it.

If American Idol were an airline company, then this weekend you'd be landing on a sunny Caribbean island surrounded by crystal blue water, perfectly manicured beaches, and a staff of locals standing by to cater to your every whim.  Ah, paradise!  Mind you, along the way your plane would've been delayed on the jetway at takeoff for five hours...you'd have made two unscheduled stops for repairs...the airline would've lost your reservation, your luggage, and your spouse...all of the in-flight magazines, not to mention every square inch of the cabin, would've been filled with nothing but ads...you'd have ordered chicken and rice for dinner but the flight attendant would've served you liver and turnips and insisted it was what you really wanted...the cockpit crew would have come on the loudspeaker every five minutes arguing furiously with one another about which one best knew how to fly the plane...and, after a harrowing landing that could not, strictly speaking, be termed a crash because the plane finished right-side up, the airline's CEO would've greeted you at the gate to remind you how enjoyable the entire experience had been, and that you could purchase MP3s of your fellow passengers' terrified screams on iTunes the next day.  Not to mention that your intended destination would've been Chicago all along.

Such is the feeling today across Idol Nation.  On the one hand, the series has never produced a final matchup as compelling as Adam Lambert vs. Kris Allen – two men who could not be more different in style or personality, but two who could not be more alike in understanding what it takes to succeed here in the Second Idol Epoch.  On the other hand, thanks to the producers' scheming antics right from the get-go (and continuing even as we speak), the itinerary felt like something between a triathlon and a death march.  Season Eight, the highest-rated one in our database, was also, at least in our eyes, the least enjoyable.  Yes, that includes Season Six.  No, we never dreamed we'd ever write those words.

So shall we focus this weekend on the journey or the destination?  Let's do a little of both.  To fully understand how we arrived at this point, and why the popular and über-talented Lambert is in serious jeopardy of losing on Tuesday night, we need to rewind the calendar to January and take this long trip over again.  Don't worry, you're flying WNTS Airways now.  We're a turnip-free airline.

Cleared For Takeoff On Runway Eight

In hindsight, it's all Sara Bareilles's fault.  Coldplay's, too.  See, until Jasmine Murray and Matt Giraud coughed up back-to-back hairballs to kick off the Group Two Semifinal episode, everything had been proceeding smoothly according to the producers' master plan....

Everyone noticed that AI8 started off strangely.  Many of we viewers wondered why the audition shows seemed so unusually focused on a handful of contestants.  Why the four Hollywood episodes featured so much irrelevant backstage footage and so little onstage singing.  Why the producers had mysteriously upped the number of semifinalists from 24 to 36.  Why they brought back the unlamented groups-and-wildcard format that nobody, save for Leah LaBelle and her immediate family, ever thought was a good idea.

All of those changes were puzzling to be sure, and we suppose they should have aroused more suspicion than they did.  True, the ever-entertaining folks at TelevisionWithoutPity.com's legendary Grassy Knoll had an inkling that something was up, but no one there could quite put their finger on it, and besides, the Knollers always think that something is up.  Here at WhatNotToSing, like almost everywhere else around the Idolsphere, we mostly wrote it off to 19E acting like drama-worshiping doofuses again.

This time, however, the conspiracy theorists were on the right track.  In past seasons, the producers would choose a handful of contestants who'd test-marketed very well and give them ample screen time before the semifinals began.  That allowed their favorites to build a fanbase that would help propel them deep into the competition; we fairness-minded fans pretended not to notice.  Still, there were always accidents along the way.  Oftentimes, those accidents would leave Idol with a field that was, from 19E's standpoint, too unpredictable, too demographically unbalanced, too fragile for the grueling long haul, or filled with too many contestants whose on-screen popularity was unlikely to translate into post-competition record sales.

For 2009, the producers apparently decided that accidents were no longer acceptable.  At the least, if mistakes were going to be made, then they'd be their own and not America's.  Essentially, they pre-selected all of the finalists for Season Eight, not just the usual handful.  It appears that 15 contestants made their initial cut, though two of those, Tatiana Del Toro and Nick Mitchell, may have been included solely for comic relief.  All received extensive "pimp piece" promotional segments in January, and most (but not all) were given airtime in Hollywood as well.  The expanded field and one-and-done Semifinals format ensured that no contestant except their chosen ones could build a big enough fanbase to advance out of a Group round.  Finally, the Wild Card Show, the first vote-free competition episode since Season One, was there to clean up any loose ends and fine-tune the field before the Finals got underway.  Foolproof!

Group One played out exactly as scripted.  Five of its twelve singers had received the full spa treatment of pimpage.  Of those, three – Danny Gokey, Alexis Grace, and Michael Sarver – advanced safely to the Finals, and the other two posted above-average web approval ratings, making their Wild Card callbacks seem perfectly normal.  (And as a bonus to the producers, they'd get to torture America with Del Toro one more time.)  All of the remaining contestants came in under 50, save for a dorky-eared nobody from North Carolina named Ricky Braddy who cracked 70 but was easily forgotten.  So far, so good, and no one was any the wiser.

But one week later, 19E's carefully-constructed house of cards began to come tumbling down.  The adorable but musically immature Murray couldn't come close to handling the difficult phrasing required on Love Song (25).  Moments later, Giraud, an accomplished piano-bar singer, overreached badly with Viva La Vida and paid the price (21).  Had both promoted contestants performed to expectations, it's almost certain that the fifth and sixth singers of the group, a scarlet-haired rocker girl from L.A. and a cute but pint-sized Arkansas newlywed, would have been sent back to obscurity the next night along with the rest of the cannon fodder.  As it was, Allison Iraheta and Kris Allen joined show-closing Adam Lambert in the Finals.  That most definitely wasn't in the script, and neither was the fact that a pair of expendables, Mishavonna Henson and Jesse Langseth, had also outsung most of the producers' chosen ones.

And now for a brief interlude.  The next weekend, two seemingly innocuous stories appeared on the Idolsphere.  First, several sources (we think MJ's Big Blog was among them) reported that an Idol fan had waited on Giraud while he was out shopping for clothes in Los Angeles.  He told her – shh-h-h! – that he was going to be singing Motown on the upcoming Wild Card Show and that he needed a hat for the performance.  "But how could he possibly know that he'd...??"  Well hang on, there's more.  Here at WNTS, we'd recently launched a new Idolmetrics study on the effects of pre-semifinals exposure, and our reader-researchers had started to submit their data.  Hey, we announced cheerfully, whaddya know: those control-freak producers are finally starting to spread the spotlight a bit.  There were 15 pimp piece recipients this year, by far the most of any season.  Their names were still listed on our home page when Group Three took to the stage....

On the surface, round three also unfolded to plan.  Three of its four prepackaged finalists made it through safely (Lil Rounds, Scott Macintyre, and Jorge Nunez), and the fourth, Von Smith, posted a solid 58.  But a few fathoms below, more trouble was brewing.  The producers, whose Achilles heel has always been clock management, had ineptly scheduled the Wild Card show to take place on Thursday, two days hence.  Hold on a sec, many bloggers wrote, how in blazes can a contestant who learns he's been eliminated on Wednesday possibly prepare a new, life-or-death performance in under 24 hours?  Evidently 19E had thought of that too, and as such they stocked Group Three with their least promising, most anonymous, most foddery of their cannon fodder, expecting none of them to make a splash....

...except Felicia Barton (76) did.  And Ju'Not Joyner (66).  And Kristen McNamara (59).  Even Kendall Beard (45) comfortably reached three stars.  Our friend Leo The Idol Guy immediately observed that at 51.7, the show was the highest-rated semifinal episode ever under the Group format.  E-v-e-r.  The show generated some cautious optimism across the Idolsphere, a sense that after two disappointing and underachieving weeks, Season Eight had finally gotten rolling.  How many of those surprisingly good kids would be invited back for the Wild Card?  Three?  Four?  Five?

One.

The 'Wild' Blue Yonder

By our estimate, Wednesday, March 3rd, 2009 was when Season Eight came off the rails.  It may someday be remembered by TV historians as the date American Idol jumped that well-worn shark.  The producers had to make an executive decision, pronto.  Seven of their preferred finalists had tickets in hand, but Iraheta and Allen had unexpectedly crashed the party.  That meant there weren't nearly enough spots in the Wild Card round to accommodate the remainder of their inner circle along with all of the unknowns who'd sung well enough to deserve a callback.  Something had to get tossed into the wastepaper basket: the producers' credibility, or their script.

In the end, they kept the script.  That night, after Group Three's results were announced, six of the eight Wild Card invitations went to their pre-chosen ones, including Giraud and Murray.  Only Kalama and Mitchell were booted from the club, in favor of Braddy and Langseth.  Group Three may have produced two-fifths of the Top 20 performances of the semifinals, but they got just one-eighth of the Wild Card slots (Smith, naturally).

Across the web, bloggers and forumists everywhere cried "Foul!"  Suddenly it became easy to piece together the clues.  The uncanny correlation of pimp piece recipients to Wild Card invitees was easily seen by anyone who visited our home page.  The story of Giraud's shopping trip took on a new significance, particularly when the next night, there he was on America's TV screens wearing a hat and singing Who's Loving You.  Obviously he'd been awarded his spot in the Wild Card round long before Group Three had even sung, making a mockery of the assertion that this was a legitimate singing competition.  A horrible realization began to set in: we loyal Idol fans, all 25 million of us, had been played for bigger fools than usual.

There were few surprises on Thursday's kangaroo court show.  The judges predictably sent Langseth and Braddy packing, even though the latter reached 4-stars for the second straight time.  The only off-script moment came at the very end when the judges, forced to choose between Giraud and Anoop Desai for the twelfth and last slot, kept both.  No doubt both had test-marketed very well.  Why get rid of either when the faceless, fanbase-less Allen surely wasn't going to last terribly long in the competition?  (We have to wonder: had Del Toro sung even passably that fateful night instead of doing her embarrassing reprise, would there have in fact been 14 finalists in Season Eight?)

So now that the producers had the "cast" they wanted for the Finals, save for two interlopers, would they put down the script and let the rest of the season play out organically?  Fat chance.  It was time to raise the curtain on Act Two.

The Final Approach

The three contestants who'd been given the pimp spot in their respective Group episodes – Gokey, Lambert, and Rounds – quickly became the judges' clear favorites when the Finals got underway.  Go figure.  Paula Abdul announced that she'd see the two men in the Finale at every convenient opportunity.  While in past years most Idolsphere analysts might have written that off as Paula Being Paula, the wounds from this season's Semifinals were still raw.  Signs of a major backlash were beginning to turn up across the web; the producers, as is their wont, ignored them.  They probably never change the batteries in their smoke detectors, either.

Meanwhile, America was busy weeding out the weak links in the Final 13, of which there were plenty to choose from.  Quite a few of the producers' November seedlings didn't perform up to snuff come spring.  Murray, for example, immediately joined AI3's LaBelle in the exclusive but embarrassing category of contestants who performed three times on the show without ever being advanced by the voters.  Grace was a surprising boot in the Final 11, after which the electorate really got serious.  For the next six weeks, they sent home the contestant with the lowest or second-lowest approval rating in our database, each and every time.

Rounds fell out of favor with the Idol Machine along about the Final 10.  The judges basically told her to sing Whitney Houston in every code known to mankind.  (Randy: "Ingsay Itneywhay Oustonhay!")  When she bravely but stubbornly refused – evidently, Celine Dion was the wrong shade of diva for them – and her performance quality began to tail off, they turned on her viciously.  That settled it: the Finale would be Lambert versus Gokey.  Period.  End of discussion.

Lambert, for his part, held up his end of the bargain.  Sometimes exhilarating, sometimes infuriating, never uninteresting, he delivered a string of excellent vocal performances coupled with the commanding stage presence of a seasoned theater veteran.  His frequently way-over-the-top style, however, earned him plenty of critics.  Gokey, in contrast, was consistently good but rarely great.  Unique among all historical Idol front-runners, he never delivered a 5-star (80+) rated performance, missing by just one point on his Semifinals effort and slowly retreating from there.  But with one notable exception (Lambert's controversial Ring Of Fire), the judges' comments to both were unswervingly, overwhelmingly, incontrovertibly enthusiastic, no matter where their approval ratings happened to fall.

While the judges were busy pimping at the top, and the voters were busy weeding at the bottom, something very strange was taking place on the midcard.  Allen and Iraheta were still alive and still singing strongly, week in and week out.  Neither dipped below 47 throughout the months of March and April, and both occasionally turned in a 5-star masterpiece.  Although their fans constantly kvetched that the judges' critiques of the twosome were too lukewarm, we'd say they were right on target: enthusiastic without being obsequiously fawning after their great outings, critical without being unduly harsh after their so-so ones.  (Neither came close to turning in a train wreck.)  Most likely, the feedback seemed middling because of the over-the-top praise heaped upon the frontrunners and the savage beat-downs given to the stragglers.  When exaggeration becomes the norm, true normalcy is easily mistaken for indifference.

Giraud, who'd acquitted himself quite well indeed after being granted his questionable Wild Card reprieve, wound up finishing seventh.  And later, fifth.  He was the puzzling beneficiary of the Judges' Save, another new twist introduced by the producers to keep an iron grip on the script.  As Idol innovations go, this one turned out better than most: it took eight full days before it became a nationwide butt of jokes when the judges' declined to use it on Grace's behalf.  (Honestly, that's pretty good for them, so stop snickering.)  When it became clear that the Save was a gimmick exclusively for Lambert's and Gokey's benefit, and that neither would need the insurance policy before it expired after the Final Six, the producers evidently feared they'd look like complete fools if they didn't use it.  Such is what we AI loyalists were forced to endure this season.

The Final Four comprised Lambert and Gokey, whom everyone expected to be there, and Iraheta and Allen, whom nobody in his right mind did.  (Well, Ryan Seacrest predicted that exact Final Four in an interview around the time of the Final 10, but that sort of proves our point.)  From where we sit, that seemed to be the most deserving quartet under the circumstances, though we'd strongly qualify that statement by reminding you of the many semifinalists who were denied a fair opportunity of making it this far.  Nonetheless, an anti-Gokey backlash was in full throttle across the Idolsphere.  Many of his detractors felt he'd received overly lenient, kid-glove treatment from the producers and judges, and they were ear-splittingly screaming mad about it.  That night, Gokey returned the favor.  It took a week before the consequences of Dream On caught up with him (that's about normal for a strong and popular contestant), and America passed the time by reluctantly making their decision between the two Accidental Finalists.  They chose Allen. 

Gokey went home in the Final Three week, having been upstaged by Allen on Heartless and pwned by Lambert on Aerosmith.  And with that, we've landed at the Finale and are taxiing to the gate.  You can turn on your cell phones and pagers now.

Baggage Claim

The purpose of retracing our steps this weekend isn't to express further outrage about how the season went down, nor to throw cold water on the Tuesday's Finale.  It's simply to remind Idol fans that sometimes all that ends well is not well.  This is one of those times.

Recall that Season Seven suffered from many of the same over-domineering ills as Season Eight.  Not only was there a script, but Paula was caught red-handed reading from it at one point.  But in the end, David Cook and David Archuleta put on a terrific Finale, everyone left the theater smiling, both singers went on to enjoy commercial success, and the producers mopped their brows and said, "Whew, did we ever just dodge a bullet.  Let's never put our thumbs on the scale like that again."  Er, well, three out of four isn't bad.

Sadly, Idol's masters seem to have gone in the opposite direction this year.  Instead of promoting the story, the producers have foolishly made themselves part of the story.  Along the way, the judges somehow came to the truly sorry belief that America tunes in to watch them, not the contestants.  Season Eight is like a recombinant virus: the DNA of the singers has been corrupted with that of the production staff, producing a new and wholly undesirable organism.  Just want America needed: a remake of The Fly, starring Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul.  Be afraid, be very afraid.

The Idol Guy sums this up brilliantly in one word: hubris.  19E has forgotten what made American Idol such a smashing success in the first place – unknown but personable singers competing head-to-head in a nationwide sing-off, with America (and not them) making the final call.

Most of the baggage from the producers' missteps appears to be piling up on Lambert's shoulders.  There's no question that 19E dearly wants him to win because they believe he'll bring in the most revenue, particularly overseas.  We'll defer to them on that, because they know the music business far better than we do, and also because we think they're correct.  Still, we concur with the perception that Lambert has received noticeably favorable treatment this year, and that at times it's been very off-putting.  (Case in point: if there's no rule that a contestant can't appear on the cover of a major entertainment magazine while the competition is going on, there really ought to be.  Three months ago, Ricky Braddy's parents were forced by 19E's lawyers to take down a website they'd started to promote his candidacy, on the grounds of unfairness.  Uh-h-h...)

Regrettably, the backlash might cost Lambert just enough votes to lose what looks to be a very close Finale.  How ironic is it that one of the most rebellious, fiercely independent artists in the show's history is being portrayed in some quarters as a company lackey?  And, the contestant whose backstory was granted less exposure than any American Idol finalist in memory has made his enforced anonymity into a compelling story?  Say it with us: That can't have been part of the script.

So who will win on Tuesday?  We're not entirely sure.  Lambert has the showmanship, the vocal chops, the media buzz, the far more passionate fanbase...and, not incidentally, the higher average approval rating on the season (72.2 to 62.5.)  Allen's fanbase isn't nearly as deep but our database says that it's wider (if there were a one-vote-per-person limit this week, he'd win), and he has the underdog story and the momentum on his side.  Both men have produced plenty of memorable performances, and both are clever and imaginative, though that hardly helps when reprises and Original Winner's Songs™ make up two-thirds of the program.

Our guess is that the outcome is mostly in Allen's hands.  Owing to the judging quirk on Movie Night, he has a golden opportunity to produce the first reprise performance in WNTS history that rates higher (maybe substantially higher) than the original.  If he chooses wisely, and if he turns his third song into anything resembling another "Heartless", he'll win.  Lambert's best chance is to stay restrained on his new song (there are no new voters to be won at this late stage by wailing), bring the competition down to the show-closing OWS, and then outsing Allen head-to-head by such an undeniable margin that even his critics will concede he's a deserving winner.  It worked for Jordin Sparks.  Lambert also has to hope fervently that the judges do him no more "favors" in the overpraise department, since that might motivate enough fed-up viewers to call in for Allen and swing the result.

Regardless of how it ends, the show needs a massive shake-up for 2010.  We for one have no intention of following Season Nine if it's anything at all like Season Eight (and if we're thinking of bailing on the show, considering all the unpaid hours we've spent over the years cataloging it, can the casual viewer be far behind?)  "Is American Idol Fixed?", screamed the web headlines this week.  Well, it may or may not be fixed, but it's sure as hell broken.  Over the next few weeks, we'll look at ways that AI might start digging out of the hole it's dug for itself, one shovelful at a time.  (And, we'll be fair and turn our crosshairs on ourselves, too; there are quite a few things we need to do better at WNTS to serve the Idolsphere, which we'll cover as well.)  Pre-boarding begins in seven days.  Get here early if you want an aisle seat.

- The WNTS.com Team

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